Many Cubist paintings depict objects from multiple viewpoints.
Many Cubist paintings depict objects from multiple viewpoints. This is true of George Braque’s Still Life with Fan (1910), in which the form of a bottle is represented by a composite image from multiple viewpoints. The vertical form is surmounted by an ellipse, a traditional Western device for depicting a cylindrical object. With regards to verisimilitude, however, the ellipse would only be visible at the cylindrical base, rather than at the rounded top. Furthermore, the far edge of the ellipse is flattened into a horizontal line, suggesting that the bottle is actually viewed at eye-level, calling for a two-dimensional image. These multiple viewpoints conflict with each other, but they nevertheless give a sense of the contour and volume of the object without resorting to illusionistic conventions. This principle is even more clearly discernible in Juan Gris’ Three Cards (1913), in which several views of a guitar are emphasised by their different colouring.
George Braque’s Still Life with Fan (1910)
This aspect of Cubism is usually attributed to Braque and Picasso’s contact with the art of Cézanne, and indeed it would be wrong to underestimate his influence (this is evident from their 1908 landscapes of L’Estaque.) It is Cézanne, not the Cubists, who pioneered multiple viewpoints in the West, and it is doubtful that he had any knowledge of primitive art when he did so. Although Cézanne is the ultimate source, a comparison of his works with those of the Cubists reveals a profound disparity with regards to their use of the technique. Cubism uses it in a much more overt way than Cézanne, and I would argue that this exaggeration is informed by archaic art forms, specifically those of Egypt. Ancient Egyptian art is of course typified by its method of representing objects from their most characteristic angles. A human face, for example, would be depicted in profile so as to display the nose in its most apprehensible form. For the same reason, the eye would be presented frontally.
Evidence for Picasso’s familiarity with, and enthusiasm for this technique can be found in the left-hand demoiselle, where both profile nose and frontal eye are depicted. This produces a composite image that is still read as a face, but which bears little resemblance to a face as it is realistically perceived. Fidelity to visual perception had been a concern of Western artists since the Renaissance. Instead, Egyptian and Cubist works share a conceptual apprehension of the face. The image conforms to the human face as it is thought of, since these characteristic features form the basis of the mind’s conception of the world. In this way, they create an image that is perhaps more representative of the object in question since it is closer to one’s mental experience of it. Similarly, Cubist works represent objects from characteristic viewpoints or by including elements that are particularly representative of the object. Picasso’s The Poet (1911) contains an element that is clearly a pipe, painted in a relatively traditional manner. From its presence the viewer infers that adjacent, less legible forms are the head and neck etc.
Picasso’s The Poet (1911)
The effect this produces confirms that Cubism’s multiple viewpoints cannot be descended from Cézanne alone, but that primitive art must have informed the engagement with his art. Looking at Cubist works, one does not sense, as one may with Cézanne, that the artist has walked around the object, recording it from successive angles. As Guy Habasque has noted, this would not constitute a break with Western conventions; it would only lead to a fragmentation of the object, while illusionistic techniques would remain intact.
In short, multiple viewpoints are not the ends in themselves, but the method by which objects are represented in their most characteristic aspects to reveal their fundamental nature. This implies that Cubism derived from primitive art its conceptual apprehension of the object, and confirms the belief that the Cubists made use of the principles rather than the forms of primitive art. Both had rejected naturalistic depiction in favour of a technique that, being more abstract, offered greater expressive potential. By this method, primitive artists had succeeded in creating imagination equivalents of nature – in recreating it, rather than reproducing it. That the Cubists shared this intention is apparent from Braque’s statement: “the aim is not to reconstitute an anecdotal fact [i.e. mere, visual representation], but to constitute a pictorial fact.”
Cubist space and volume tend to be dislocated and reassembled on the surface of the picture. “Backgrounds” are brought forward to the picture plane and unified with the “foreground” by their common use of linear scaffolding. Recession is suggested, rather than depicted, by subtle tonal contrasts that create an effect of fragmented planes facetted together. Modelling in light and shade is, therefore, replaced with light vibrations evoking a sense of volume and mass without resorting to illusionism. At their most sculptural, Cubist works resemble low reliefs. As Habasque has observed, it is difficult to see how primitive art could have yielded this solution. The sculptural forms of African masks seem irreconcilable with Cubism’s emphasis on planarity and linearity. In this respect Cézanne’s influence is much more significant.
Picasso’s Bottle of Vieux Marc, Glass, and Newspaper (1913)
Instead, I would argue that primitive art informed another central aspect of Cubism: that of transparency. Kahnweiler argued that Braque and Picasso derived this principle from Wobé masks, in which sculptors had made concave what is convex and vice versa. For Kahnweiler this resulted in the “transparent” planes of Cubism where volume and mass were reversed. He cited the Cubists’ frequent depiction of guitars in which the sound hole (a void) was represented by a projecting cylinder (a solid mass). The later papiers collés (1912-14) reinforce this argument. In Picasso’s Bottle of Vieux Marc, Glass, and Newspaper (1913) a shape resembling the stem of a wineglass has been cut out of a piece of paper glued to the surface. Here a negative space stands in for a positive one. It is easy to see how these Cubist principles may descend from African sculptors’ practice of creating concave faces and projecting, rather than recessed, foreheads. Despite the resemblance, however, Goldwater has problematised the relationship. In his view, the “transparency” Kahnweiler observed in Wobé masks is not a fundamental quality of them. Instead, he believed that the reversal of concave and convex forms was merely an overt instance of the expressive exaggeration of Negroid physiognomy found in all African sculpture, and that creating transparency was not the intention. Goldwater argued convincingly that the Cubists’ transparency was ultimately related to African sculpture, but was based on their subjective interpretation of it; African art seen through “the selective lens of their own necessities.” He goes on to state that “this is everywhere the relation of the modern “Primitivizing’ artist to primitive art.’
This is undoubtedly a valid and useful understanding of the Cubists’ contact with primitive art, and it is to some extent confirmed by Picasso’s example. As mentioned above, historians tend to agree that Picasso did not repaint the masked demoiselles until his visit to the Trocadéro in 1907. Until then, primitive art had made no significant impression on him. The reason for the discrepancy is surely that primitive art did not effect him until it related to his needs. It has already been shown that Picasso regularly appropriated principles and certain formal devices, but did so only to articulate his own themes (such as the fear of disease expressed in Demoiselles.) Rubin has written that “it is precisely because Picasso was looking for new solutions to the direct communication of these primordial terrors … that he seized upon [African sculpture] at that particular moment as a source of inspiration.”
The idea that Picasso’s relation to primitive art consisted of such a personalised appropriation is supported by his sometimes rather cavalier treatment of his sources. The colouring of Demoiselles, and most of his “Negro” works, consists of the saturated colours and “brutal” combinations characteristic of Oceanic works. Such colouring conflicts with the fact that the sculptural aspects of his works are derived from African masks (which are usually unpainted). A similar situation has been observed in Léger’s primitivist works, which involve an equally free and liberal interpretation.
In other words, Cubist artists used elements of primitive art only when it suited their own ends. This implies that the Cubists utilised aspects of primitive art, not because its aesthetic impressed them to such an extent that they wanted to reproduce it (from which we would expect a greater fidelity to specific forms). Instead they did so because they felt that primitive art conformed to their intentions, in that both were striving for a pure artistic language. Gill Perry has written that this relationship propagated the myth that “Primitivist” artists were “in touch with a pure, direct mode of artistic expression,” unfettered by Western misconceptions about the functions of art.
That such a belief provided a motivation can be confirmed in the case of Picasso. According to his understanding, African masks all share a common function: they were used in magical ceremonies, as part of shamanic ritual or as religious fetishes. In his view this was a basic function of all art works and something to which African sculptors had remained faithful. In the same way, he reputedly believed that his own works possessed magical capabilities and could be used, for example, in the exorcistic manner of Mbuya (sickness) masks: “If we give form to these spirits we become free.”
In conclusion, since the fundamental concern of Cubist artists was to create a distinctly new approach to Western art, archaic and non-European art forms were used firstly because they helped in achieving this aim. They did so by providing a radical alternative to rejected Western conventions, and thus prepared the ground for the advent of Cubism. They were also instrumental in shaping the Cubist method. Since primitive art was being judged from a foreign perspective by artists aiming to create a new art, not to relocate an old one, the relationship tended to be one of borrowing principles rather than forms. These included transparency and, in particular, the conceptual approach to depiction: principles that were essential to Cubism. Therefore, primitive art, though formally not the only or most notable source of inspiration, nevertheless had a vital influence on the genesis and practice of Cubism.